Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Ephraim Butler. 1837-1879

Ephraim Butler was born in 1837 in Risley, between Nottingham and Derby in the midlands of England. He was the son of Joseph Frearson Butler, and his wife Sarah (Theobold). Ephraim’s mother was only 15 when she married his father (who was 27) and she had 15 children before she died at the age of 48. Two of the children died in infancy but the other 13 have produced hundreds of descendants. William, her first born, was born in 1819, when Sarah was 17.Ephraim was Sarah’s twelfth child, and her seventh son. His oldest brother William was 18 years old when he was born. When Ephraim was 13 his mother died. Together with two others of his siblings he ended up living with an older sister, Maria, who was already married, to a man named Lorenzo. At the time of the 1851 census, when Ephraim was 14, he was employed as a labourer. 

The first born of the Butler family was William. He worked with Isambard Brunel on the Great Western Railway, and became manager of a tar works in Bristol as a result of Brunel’s involvement with the establishment. Tar products were greatly needed for the building of railways, since sleepers were wooden and needed to be preserved with creasote. Tar was also essential for the production of a number of other chemical substances. William Butler had the opportunity to purchase the tar works as a result of a fire in which the current owners decided to bail out. He developed the works into a successful business and became very wealthy. The company flourished over a hundred years through two world wars and finally closed in the 1970s.

Ephraim, at some stage moved to Bristol, as did a good many of his siblings. I have not been able to find him in the 1861 census but in 1863 when he married Sarah Jane Coombs (who was known as Jane) he was living in the growing metropolis of Bristol. Jane Coombs’ father was an umbrella merchant in Bristol and it would seem Ephraim was working in the umbrella and parasol business too at that time.

Ephraim and Jane had three children, daughters. The first was Sarah, born in 1864, and the second, Martha, was born in 1866. Both were born in Bristol. At some time after that the young couple decided to move to South Africa. Exactly when they left is unclear, but they don’t appear in the 1871 census, so it must have been between 1866 and 1871. Why they left is also uncertain, but there was the attraction of gold, and Ephraim was also in the Cape Mounted Rifles for a time. His death certificate indicates that his official occupation in South Africa was “general trader.” They lived in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

In 1876 a third daughter was born, Mabel, my great grandmother. Sadly, her mother Jane died either in or as a result of childbirth. She was just 29 years old and Mabel never knew her mother. When Mabel was three Ephraim decided to move back to England, and he embarked with his three daughters on the SS Arab, a new steamship, to sail for home. However, on the voyage he became sick with dysentery complicated by a liver abscess, and died at sea before he reached England. His death was registered in Plymouth but his body was apparently transported back to Bristol where he was buried in the church yard of the Hanham Tabernacle. The Butler family were non-conformists, Wesleyans. Ephraim was just 42 when he died and left his three children as orphans.

The three girls were initially cared for by another of Ephraim’s older brothers, Isaac, who was 10 years older than Ephraim. However, Isaac’s wife seemed not to have warmed to this responsibility and the three orphans were distributed amongst various other family members. The older sisters soon gained employment. In 1881 at the time of the census and two years after their return to England from Africa, Sarah, aged 17, was living with an uncle, William Hemmings, and his family. William Hemmings was a green grocer and Sarah was employed as his assistant. Martha, aged 15 was a drapers assistant and lived with the draper’s family (William Hills). Mabel was only 5 and she lived with her grown up cousin William Butler, the son of the tar distiller. William was married and had three children, the youngest of whom was the same age as Mabel. They lived at Summerhill House, in St George, Bristol.

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